by Paul R. Pillar
Even some observers of the war in Syria who have wisely given up the idea of forcibly destroying the Assad regime still argue that greater force, including U.S. military force, should be used to induce that regime to negotiate a settlement of the war. Stated that simply—as it often is—the argument reflects misunderstanding, in at least two important respects, of how the military status of a war relates to opening negotiations for a peace.
First, a peace negotiation requires at least two parties. Both sides in a war need to see an advantage in negotiating rather than not negotiating, and they need to see it at the same time. This fact certainly is pertinent to conflict in Syria; opposition forces have used as much uncompromising language as has the regime in expressing ambitions of achieving military victory. The military situation in Syria will be conducive to negotiation if both the opposition and the regime, and their external backers, have dropped any such ambitions and have reason to negotiate seriously and to make concessions about the future political shape of Syria. It’s not a matter of killing dreams of victory on just one side.
Second, for a belligerent to be willing to negotiate requires not only that the war not be going too well for it, but also that it not be going too badly. Going too well means continuing to harbor ambitions of achieving an outright military victory, with no need to make concessions at a negotiating table. Going too badly means fear of having a losing hand at any such table. It means having an incentive to keep fighting to reverse the tide of battle and develop a stronger hand before sitting down at the table.
This principle also is quite pertinent to the Syrian war. The Assad regime, whose very existence is at stake, has strong incentive to keep fighting if it has a losing hand and if there is any chance at all of turning it into a somewhat better hand. With the backing of Russia, it can count on having such a chance. Russian aid to the Syrian regime has already appeared to be designed not to give the regime the ability to win an outright victory but instead to keep the tide of battle from going so badly against it that it would be a loser either on the battlefield or at the negotiating table.
Earlier wars have demonstrated these principles. A particularly instructive example that involved the United States was the Korean War. That war saw a year of intense back-and-forth combat before negotiations began for an armistice that was signed two years later and remains in effect today. During that first year of the war, either one side or the other, or both, saw the war as going either too well or too badly to want to negotiate.
For the first three months after North Korea’s surprise attack across the 38th Parallel in June 1950, neither side looked to negotiations, as the North’s forces pushed southward and reduced their opposition to a perimeter around Pusan at the end of the peninsula. For the Communists, the war was going too well to want to negotiate, with military success holding out the prospect of uniting Korea under their rule through force alone. For the United States and the United Nations Command it headed, there was no thought of negotiations during this period because the war was going too badly. All thinking on the U.S. side was instead focused on reversing the tide of battle.
That reversal was accomplished with Douglas MacArthur’s brilliant landing at Inchon in September. With Communist forces still holding most of the peninsula but retreating northward, the Communist powers briefly made some efforts, mostly through Soviet diplomacy at the United Nations, to get armistice negotiations started. But as the retreat continued, the Communists soon lost interest in negotiations. Sometime in October, as U.N. forces moved northward across the Parallel, the Chinese reached their decision to intervene. Meanwhile, the post-Inchon turnaround in military fortunes had been so sudden that American thinking went straight from not wanting negotiations because the war was going too badly to not wanting negotiations because the war was going too well, amid visions of MacArthur’s forces liberating everything up to the Yalu and a united non-Communist Korea emerging.
The Chinese intervention in late November reversed the tide of battle once again, and just as suddenly. For the next few months the diplomatic posture of each side was again as it was during the first three months of the war: the Communists were not interested in talks because the war was going too well; the U.S. was not interested because it was going too badly, with U.N. forces thrown back into the southern part of the peninsula.
U.N. forces stopped the Chinese advance by January 1951 and then slowly pushed the front line back to the vicinity of the 38th Parallel. In April, President Truman said the United States was finally ready to negotiate. The Chinese still hoped to push the front line southward again, a hope that died with the failure of a Communist offensive in May. In June, the Soviet ambassador at the U.N. indicated that the Communist side was willing to start armistice negotiations, which got under way in July.
In short, bloodshed continued and negotiations did not begin during the first year of the Korean War, just as much because a belligerent was losing and felt the need to improve the military situation before sitting down to talk, as because a belligerent was winning and smelled military victory. So too with the current war between the regime and opposition in Syria. The likely result of added military pressure on the Assad regime would be not a greater willingness of Assad to negotiate, but instead a greater determination to keep fighting to move the military situation more in its favor—with the help of Russia, playing a situation-moving role somewhat similar to the role the Chinese played in Korea.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.